PRINT Summer 2007


David Hammons

If it’s good kitsch, it will be good art!
—David Hammons

INDULGE ME in an anecdote from the roaring ’80s. My set piece places a certain art consultant (of storied chutzpah and a measure of clout) at the feet of a certain SoHo gallerist (of storied sangfroid and even greater clout), bewailing the cruelty of her colleague who has just stiffed her on her accustomed commission. “You can’t do this to me,” the consultant wails, her prized client having momentarily stepped out of earshot. “That woman keeps me in furs!”

For those of you whose cultural memories don’t reach back this far, the high-’80s art consultant tended to be a lady with modest art expertise (and, unfailingly, a mink coat) who made a living by squiring other ladies with no art expertise (but lots of mink coats) on managed art-shopping tours of SoHo, then the epicenter of the contemporary gallery world. It was not at all uncommon circa 1986 to spot a furry posse moving down West Broadway in hot pursuit of “cuttin’ edge”—then lunch, of course, and maybe a pit stop at Dianne B.

If you’re wondering why I’m opening a discussion of, arguably, today’s most accomplished African-American artist with this somewhat unseemly detour into the palest reaches of the art market, it is precisely because David Hammons’s recent collaboration (with his wife, Chie Hammons) at New York’s swanky L&M Arts made a stunning coup de théâtre of the couple’s tanglement in the food tube that connects progressive culture and the moneyed patron. Consisting of half a dozen artfully defiled full-length furs displayed on vintage dress forms (five in a grand ground-floor parlor and a lone chinchilla at the top of a great staircase), this unlikely excursus on mink and the marketplace simultaneously “performed” the Hammonses’ place in the art regime and emblematized their ire at the pact.

Anyone who has felt the impulse to take a can of spray paint to a granite wall—or, for that matter, plant a brushstroke on a stretch of virgin canvas—will thrill to the inspiration that would make a painterly support of a coat which, if new, would set you back a bunch of thousands. Hammons exacted his violence on the backs of those precious pelts not only with paint, but also with varnish—and even with fire (the stench of burned chinchilla was still discernible the day the show came down)—and, when you rounded the mannequins to discover his handiwork, the wallop was undeniable. Still, the power of this intervention, like Hammons’s art more generally, depended as much on the site as on the visceral emblems he deposits there. Hammons’s art may end in the object, but it begins in his insistence on activating the context in which he embeds it, in “performing” the mise-en-scène in which his work inevitably takes its meaning. When asked about his African-American artist forebears in a 1991 interview, Hammons singled out Robert Colescott, not for the artfulness of his painterly lampoons but precisely for “using himself as a subject and getting mixed up in the art world.”

“Using himself as a subject and getting mixed up in the art world”: The question, of course, is how to understand this pronouncement, which amounts to Hammons’s own two-pronged manifesto. “Using himself” doesn’t have to do with making art “about” himself, with biography per se, but rather with entering the flow of life, of putting himself in a “position of interaction and contact,” to quote another early interview. As for “getting mixed up in the art world,” certainly all successful artists do it, even when they demur; the difference is that Hammons theatricalizes his refusals—and his capitulations. The artist’s renegade chops owe a good deal to the fact that he has long refused to sign with a gallery (not for lack of suitors), but his rebuffs are also, inevitably, engagements that have served his special-case celebrity rather handsomely. Hammons’s MO is not refusal; on the contrary, he moves into and through the system and the symptom—which is why his apologists will more often reach for a word like shaman than for master or, more to the point, schoolmaster, in describing him. The aspect that inspires the tag has nothing to do with blubbery romanticism but rather with the fact that Hammons taps into flows of power that are real and even dangerous, which lends to the situations he inhabits the potency of living ritual. Consider Hammons’s choice of venue here: Housed in a neo-Federal-style mansion on East Seventy-eighth Street, L&M is not just a fancy Upper East Side gallery, it is a secondary-market gallery, which means that its business consists not in sustaining and nurturing artists by selling new work on their behalf but rather in reselling artworks on behalf of those who collect them. For better or worse, secondary-market dealers are “top feeders.” Sophisticated merchandising efforts aside—these galleries (especially a relatively classy venue like L&M) frequently contextualize the works they offer in handsome exhibitions filled out with museum loans—this is not exactly the sort of establishment with which one would initially expect a cultish renegade like Hammons to align himself. The point is that Hammons is not interested in allegiance, in a happy home; he is interested in keeping his distance. When he penetrates the inner sanctum of the trade, it is to enact and expose the forces that animate it—and to offer ritual retribution where it counts. As Jerry Saltz reported in the Village Voice, Hammons approached L&M, telling them he had an idea that, in his sublime deadpan, “would perfectly fit the gallery’s space and history,” and he offered his services with a number of unorthodox stipulations: The gallery would not see the work until the exhibition; the work would not be for sale (at least at the time of the show); and there would be no press release or ads. Of course, these folks (the gallery’s founder, Robert Mnuchin, was formerly a managing partner of Goldman Sachs) did not come to preside over this posh emporium by being dumb: No matter Hammons’s caveats, L&M jumped at the opportunity!

To be tagged by Hammons as his next exhibitor, these days at least, is a bit like being honored with a roast; it means you’re a someone or a something—whether the details are pretty is another matter. The last venue he so honored was Ace Gallery, in 2002; suffice it to say that their West SoHo galleries are unusually capacious, and that Hammons left them unusually empty—and dark, save for the miniflashlight supplied the visitors who discovered only one another spelunking in the void. But here’s the real kicker: It turns out Hammons does have a “dealer,” or at least a representative—a certain Lois Plehn, who (you will think me annoyingly artful) just happens to be one of “the ladies” of the late-’80s fur brigade! Over the years, as was not uncommon, she had evolved from being art advised to art advising. Ms. Plehn is not, on the surface of it, the most likely choice to take home this universally coveted prize—not quite (I mean to be delicate here) a Marian Goodman or a David Zwirner. All this is pure Hammons: “You want an art dealer,” he seems to say. “I’ll show you an art dealer.” You’ve got to hand it to the man: Lois Plehn was an inspiration, a sucker punch aimed at the vanity of the picture trade. I trust she is enjoying, if not the last laugh, at least a hearty (and lucrative) one.

Hammons, it should be noted, does not restrict his épatering to the bourgeoisie, but takes down the institutions and mythologies of all the constituencies that include and sustain him. He is, in fact, an equal-opportunity épaterer, an artist whose oeuvre includes a wheel of empty Night Train bottles from 1989 and a 1986 installation consisting of basketball hoops atop thirty-foot-tall poles (talk about unrealizable hoop dreams!). Hammons, as ever, is moving through the world as he knows it—it’s just that what he knows today includes the blue-chip gallery as much as the Harlem street corner. When it comes right down to it, this winter’s Seventy-eighth Street coup de théâtre is not so very different from his now-mythical 1983 Bliz-aard Ball Sale. If Hammons made a productively estranging spectacle of himself as an artist of color when he peddled snowballs in front of an art school, at L&M he is making a productive spectacle of himself as a blue-chip artist whose credentials as such depend on his status as a thorn in the art world’s side.

Irreducible icons and real-time ritual: To achieve both at once is no small feat. That Hammons dependably manages this poise aligns his art with that of some of the bravest artists of the moment, ones who at first might seem unlikely bedfellows: Richard Prince, Takashi Murakami, Reena Spaulings, Jeff Koons, and, before them, Andy Warhol. I am stepping into quicksand here, I know, because in separating Hammons’s method—his means and magic—from the specificity of his sources and situation as an African-American artist, I risk setting him against his compeers of color and, in the process, claiming him as an “exception” in my, um, all-too-white canon. That Hammons has remained true to his African-American context requires no special pleading; yet at the same time he has said (as far back as 1991) that he refuses to “get trapped into making cultural statements”—has cautioned, in fact, against a certain less-than-productive redundancy in speaking to his condition solely in the language of race. What this uptown fur vault drove home once again was that the Hammons magic, the daring—and the effectiveness—of the high-wire act, is so rare among artists (African-American or otherwise) that we can only celebrate his genius. By performing his life—his many lives—and in the process distilling and leaving in his wake a string of altogether unsentimental markers of his passage through art’s institutions, he has outperformed the imperatives of the system that would co-opt him even as he reifies his interventions in imagistic and objective talismans. Which is to say, he has found a way to play the game of art and win it.

An observation of Manthia Diawara’s ratifies Hammons’s place in my pantheon of “Pop performers,” on the “Pop,” as opposed to just the “performative,” front. Writing in these pages in 1998, Diawara remarked that Hammons’s work “is Pop art par excellence, because it . . . lets us consider the object both as fetish (transformative) and kitsch (the banalized mass-produced thing) all at once.” And what could be more irredeemably kitsch than the mink coat, that time-honored signifier of luxury, glamour, and trophied femininity? Think Beverly Hillbillies (my memory is freshly lubricated by an “early episodes” DVD box set). In the second installment, an affable but none-too-bright Jethro Bodine, mistaking for the living thing the fox stole adorning the neck of arch blueblood Margaret Drysdale, blasts the bloodthirsty varmint with a rusty shotgun. Or, to update the slapstick for the PETA present, recall the real-life spectacle of Vogue editrix and reigning empress of fashion Anna Wintour being struck with a tofu pie flung by an angry activist as she strode into a Parisian fashion show decked out in a fox-trimmed jacket. Fur is John Waters’s uniquely frumpy superstar, Mink Stole; it’s Harlem in ermine and pearls; and it’s Aretha bringing it back downtown, announcing at the start of a City Center show that she’s a little out of voice this evening and then dropping her snow white fur to the stage floor in a gesture of symbolic expenditure as she breaks into a notably full-voiced rendition of “R-e-s-p-e-c-t.” Fur, in short, is pure camp. If Aretha milks the cliché in her theater of empowered divahood for the feel-good fun of it, Hammons manages—amazingly—to retap the toxic power of fur’s defanged symbolism, by returning it to the one zip code where it really and reliably terrorizes.

As I exited the parquet precincts of L&M and stepped back out into the uptown afternoon, the street number on a familiar awning served as my madeleine for a New York fur story, one both camp and more than camp. It concerned a longtime habitué of these patrician blocks, a gentle dowager who at one time could be spotted daily strolling the ave, clad, as were her two Guatemalan maids (thanks to her dotty largesse), in a full-length fur. That haughty pair, casting liberal quantities of shade on the lesser (read: furless) mortals in a silent “Gangway!” made for a pretty hairy picture.

I imagined Hammons strolling, slowly, as is his way (“With my art, I usually come to town, walk around for a few days, and wait for something to happen”), and bumping head-on into the furry threesome as a doorman ferried them into the pedestrian flow. The artist would not have missed this bit of comédie humaine—or let it “pass.” It would have satisfied his taste for dada serendipity—and aroused his fury.

Jack Bankowsky is editor at large of Artforum.